These days, I am exasperated with the lack of genuinely wide-ranging reinventions of art criticism (although that is in part a side effect of there not being enough time, talent and budget even to produce comprehensively informational art journalism — the world is just too big and too diverse). So, when I write about art from here on out, I plan to use my limited time and allotted space to deal with larger issues, one way or another, even when the larger issues are no more than tangentially related to the exhibition under review.
You have been warned.
That said, it should be noted first of all that “Reverie,” an exhibition of paintings by Julianne Trew and Erin Palovick at Kibbee Gallery, which closes with a reception March 30, is a small but compelling sensory delight.
Palovick’s abstract patches of color, executed with greater intensity than one would think colored pencils are capable of producing, are rhymed with matching rocks and minerals, in a poetic installation that reminds us how fundamentally pigments were derived from the world of nature before chemists learned how to decompose and recompose nature’s constituent elements to create today’s vast array of artificially produced colors. Some of our best pigments still come from pulverized stones and crushed insects.
Palovick’s open and refreshingly simple studies of our response to color are twinned with Trew’s depths of complexity in a way that should make viewers happy that so many of these works are offered at prices you can’t even find in discount stores. Any sensible collector would stock up on some of these treasures while the buying is good.
Recursions and revisions of the world of nature, Trew’s paintings link our deepest psychological contents and discontents with the shapes seen through microscopes, or telescopes, or in bits of flora as they are decontextualized in botany textbooks. If T.S. Eliot could show us fear in a handful of dust or W.B. Yeats could write that the worst of the 16 apparitions he had seen was a coat upon a coat hanger, Trew can wrest rue and angst from a seed pod twinned with a star’s gaseous demise.
Or perhaps her images stem from neither source; the indeterminate nature of the artist’s small collisions of visions is summed up in the cloudy shapes of “A Vague Nightmare,” which seems to inhabit a world that combines John Martin’s Victorian apocalypses with the findings of the Hubble space observatory.
Trew’s trademark style remains her transformation of the proto-surrealism of Bosch and Brueghel. But her new work seeks a more cheerful emotional register. The small, almost day-glo botanical visions of “The Garden, I-XXV” are as far from the dark tonal qualities of Trew’s predominant images as can be imagined. Their brilliance almost takes them off the Pantone chart.
This new venturing into subject matter that would have made John Ruskin happy (I’m thinking of what Ruskin did when he rhymed the curvatures of medieval architecture with the shape of the leaves of Alisma Plantago) is mostly but not entirely successful — to my eye, anyway. Even though most of them evoke unalloyed delight, some of the background color choices overwhelm the delicately meditative quality of line in the ink drawings.
In a quite different way, the bright pastels that intrude into the darkness in the more characteristically anxious painting “The Shore” produce an ensemble that does not play well together, emotionally speaking — even if “The Shore” does allude to a stormy ocean, and even if the aforementioned Hubble telescope has revealed a colorful cosmic playground out there in what Blaise Pascal called “the vast silence of those infinite spaces.”
The range of possible reactions to work such as Palovick’s and Trew’s reinforces my conviction that we need to find methods with which to render more rigorous the painfully tin-eared pop-psychology slogan of yesteryear, “Different strokes for different folks.” It is possible to define aesthetic quality (subtlety, complexity, depth of references, strength of composition would be a few semi-objective markers), but that aesthetic quality’s emotional and intellectual impact on the viewer depends not just on his prior experience but also his personality and perceptual equipment. We literally do not all see things the same way, not even light and color.
C.G. Jung wrote that when physics explains the nature of light, nobody expects that as a result there will be no light, but that whatever psychology explains is assumed to have been explained away. Taking Jung’s memorable footnote to heart, we ought to seek ways in which to take into account both the intrinsic qualities of an artwork and the different situations of readers, and to explain why something that is an aesthetically excellent emotional tonic for a specific group of viewers may well be a still excellent but probably unappreciated turn-off for another one — and that there really isn’t anything wrong with that. We have some of the methodological equipment to begin to do this already, and the cognitive scientists ought to partner with the sociologists of knowledge to give us more and better tools to accomplish this task.
There are many pitfalls along the way, as the excesses of yesteryear’s structuralism and sociobiology ought to have taught us. (More recently, dopamine has been blamed for more of our emotional silliness than it deserves to take the rap for, so we can continue to expect high-flown failed speculations of the sort with which the art world regularly becomes infatuated.)
We ought to reach for modest insights rather than grand, premature syntheses, but we ought to reach for them. And in their own attractive ways, Palovick and Trew do.